As recent decades have been plagued by Islamic terrorism and wars in the Middle East, Islam has moved to the center of Western political discourse. And Daniel Pipes has been at the center of this debate, providing tens of millions with his insightful analysis. This analysis has made Dr. Pipes an authority on matters related to Islam and Middle Eastern affairs. In addition to providing analysis through his personal website and the Middle East Forum, which he founded, Pipes travels around the world, speaking at universities, think tanks, and other venues. His appearances often provoke disruptions and angry protests, while simultaneously arousing fervent support.
We sat down with him to talk about Israel, Iran, Barack Obama’s presidency, and other timely issues. He also reminisced about a debate — which he calls a highlight of his career — in London in 2007 in which he and a British neo-conservative, Douglas Murray, defeated their opponents, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Salma Yaqoob, a local Respect-Party politician from Birmingham.
Pipes has tough words for the Israeli political leadership. According to him, Israel is simply trying to cope as crises occur; its leadership lacks a strategic vision or a plan to deal with basic security issues. In Pipes’ view, Israel has become a dramatic opposite of what the young country was in the 1950s and after, when it was led by a talented leadership with a vision of Israel’s long term interests.
The interview took place in Herzliya, Israel.
Israel needs a policy.
Q: Has Israel given up on the idea of victory?
Daniel Pipes: I would say that it isn’t trying to win; it has no idea what it is doing.
Q: Wouldn’t you agree that the international community is preventing Israel from winning?
Daniel Pipes: No. It’s an internal problem. From 1948 until 1993 Israel had a policy of deterrence that implied a goal of victory. In 1993 the leaders adopted a policy of appeasement, i.e., give something to your enemy in the hopes it will leave you alone. Appeasement was abandoned in 2000 in favor of unilateral withdrawals which then ended in 2006. Now there is no policy at all. There is no place where the government of Israel is trying to go; it is simply trying to put out brush fires. What is it trying to do in Gaza, for example? Is it trying to get rid of Hamas? Trying to get Egypt to take over the place? Or trying to get Gilad Shalit released? I discern this to the lack of policy objectives. This is not an issue of outside pressure.
Q: Does Israel need such a rigid policy, a clear vision of the future, considering that its economy is booming?
Daniel Pipes: Israel is booming economically, but it’s increasingly under criticism bordering on delegitimation to the point that an economic boycott by Europe could take place, with other countries joining in. Israel could become an isolated state like South Africa. New Zealand doesn’t need a strategy; Israel does.
Q: What are the chances of a peace deal between Israel and Syria?
Daniel Pipes: Minimal. I don’t see the Syrian leadership wanting to split from Iran, the dynamic force in the Middle East. Being with Iran feels like the winning team. So, a deal with Israel looks unlikely.
Q: What if Iran changed?
Daniel Pipes: Yes, if something happened that caused Iran to be the losing team, the weak horse, then others, like Assad, would have second thoughts.
Q: And if Iran goes nuclear then Syria wouldn’t split with Iran.
Daniel Pipes: That would give Damascus all the more reason to stick with Tehran.
Q: You don’t see a desire there on the Syrian side to make peace with Israel?
Daniel Pipes: Syrians would be better off with such a deal, so such a deal is commonsensical. But why would Bashar al-Assad want it and leave what he sees as the winning team, the strong horse? Remember, Syria is run for the benefit of its rulers, not its subjects. I see no evidence that he is ready to change sides.
The same argument could be heard a decade ago, that Hafez al-Assad should have signed a peace treaty with Israel to get all the benefits that would accrue. I doubted this because he knew how to run a dictatorship, not a country with a stock exchange, a free press, and an open culture. His much less capable son has cast his lot even more thoroughly with the Iranians. He belongs to their bloc, period.
That said, Netanyahu almost reached a deal with Assad in 1998, stopped only by his foreign minister, Ariel Sharon. I exposed this story in the New Republic a year later. If Netanyahu was willing to give the Golan Heights away twelve years ago, he might do so again.
Q: Netanyahu later denied your account?
Daniel Pipes: He did deny it. During an hour we spent together in 2001, he lambasted me for getting the story wrong. But I stick by my account.
Would Obama bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities?
Q: Do you see Obama using force against Iran?
Daniel Pipes: I think he could strike, for a couple of reasons: he said he won’t accept an Iranian nuclear capability and he is doing so poorly at home. On the latter point: if he wants to change the discourse, bombing Iranian nuclear infrastructure works better than anything else.
Also, going back to the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant, the Israelis didn’t signal they were going to attack but indicated they could not carry out this operation. Then suddenly, boom, they did it. This suggests that disinformation is always part of the game. Therefore, I don’t know what we know.
Q: Do you think a strike on Iran would guarantee Obama a second term?
Daniel Pipes: I wouldn’t go that far but it would change the political dynamics in his favor.
Q: Would you agree that president Obama shows particular incompetence?
Daniel Pipes: I am not sure. There are two ways of reading him: either look at the declining poll numbers and at the general incompetence; or see him as an ideologue with specific goals, such as the state taking over one-sixth of the economy, and getting re-elected is not a high priority. I see him as the fourth of Democratic presidents who seeks to alter the relationship of state to society: Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, and now Obama.
Q: The president is an ideologue, not a pragmatist?
Daniel Pipes: Yes, but he could become pragmatic, and bombing Iran would be pragmatic. By the way, the left in the U.S. — what the White House spokesman calls the “professional left” — has been attacking Obama. Leftist commentary is sometimes even more bitter than that from the right. On the left you find grievous disappointment.
Rising anti-Islamic sentiment in America?
Q: How would you comment on the Cordoba Initiative?
Daniel Pipes: It represents another effort to expand Islamism. More interesting is the reaction against it, which amounts to a push-back against mosques in general, in Tennessee and other places.
Q: But there are no anti-Muslim incidences; there are nine times more anti-Semitic incidences.
Daniel Pipes: Sure, but there are some against Muslims, though fewer anti-Muslim incidences than anti-Jewish ones, as you point out. We see a growth in anti-Islamic, not anti-Islamist, sentiment. I don’t endorse that. I want the resistance to be constrained and careful.
Q: The Muslim minority in America is more successful than any other Muslim minority in any other Western country. Is anti-Islamic sentiment really an issue in the American context?
Daniel Pipes: Yes, it is. It is growing.
Q: But there are no zealots who are encouraging people to go out in the streets and act against Muslims.
Daniel Pipes: No, it is not organized, but there is a sense that those who don’t like Islamization and those who don’t like Muslims have found a voice and an issue. In some ways I am glad and in others I am worried. I am pleased Americans are rejecting Islamization but they should accept moderate Islam.
Q: What is your view of the man behind the mosque, Imam Abdul Rauf?
Daniel Pipes: He is an opportunist and a publicity hound. He calls himself an imam but he doesn’t even have a degree. The Islamist establishment is not happy about him because he brought this upon them. I don’t mind his mosque being built because it damages Islamism.
Q: Either way Americans win.
Daniel Pipes: Yes.
The complex nature of the Arab world
Q: Back to the Arab world. Do you think that tribalism is more pervasive than Islam in the Arab world?
Daniel Pipes: Islam has absorbed a tribal ethos and brings with it tribal features. Tribalism is not the feature — Egypt is not a tribal society — but it is endemic, a lens that explains many features.
Q: Is Islamism here to stay?
Daniel Pipes: The Islamist movement is dominant right now but it’s temporary. We can already see an increase in Muslims who reject Islamism and who are drawing inspiration from the Western liberal model. They are not in a position of power but there is a ferment of ideas among brave dissidents, intellectuals, and organizers spreading these ideas. They could well succeed but it is not going to be very soon.
Q: What about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has all this power in the Muslim world and he is considered a moderate within the Muslim community?
Daniel Pipes: He is a moderate Islamist, which means about the same as a moderate Nazi.
Q: Would you agree that Qaradawi represents the Arab street?
Daniel Pipes: He is a leading Islamist figure and intellectual who has great reach with his books, television shows, organizations, and diplomacy, but I do not concede that most Muslims are Islamists.
Q: Isn’t Islamism part of a historic continuum in Islamic history? It didn’t appear in a vacuum.
Daniel Pipes: For sure, there are antecedents to modern Islamists, for example Ibn Taymiyya. But it is a modern ideological elaboration on an old theme.
Q: How do you explain the inability for collective self-criticism in the Arab world? For example, a recent article in the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat argues that there needs to be further investigation into what really happened on 9/11.
Daniel Pipes: I wrote a whole book on this called The Hidden Hand, about conspiracy theories in the Middle East. The mental dependence on conspiracy theories in Arabic-speaking countries is quite extraordinary. Ironically, it is not an inherently Muslim phenomenon but derives from the West. One proof of this lies in the fact that Muslims have the same two conspiratorial enemies as do Europeans: Jews and secret societies like the Freemasons. Contrarily, they hardly ever blame Hindus, Russians, Germans, Chinese, and Japanese.